Police Ombudsman likens role at times to 'trench warfare'
OUTGOING Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire has likened the high-profile oversight role at times to “trench warfare”.
The 59-year-old is due to step down from the watchdog today after seven years in the job.
In his last interview, he also described how he believes there are some within the PSNI and "wider policing family" who have difficulty with accountability.
Appointed in 2012, Dr Maguire replaced Al Hutchinson and has published several reports dealing with the past.
These include the 1994 Loughinisland massacre during which six Catholic men were shot dead by the UVF in the Heights Bar while watching a World Cup match.
Dr Maguire concluded there had been RUC collusion in the case.
Last year the High Court rejected a challenge by retired police officers that the ombudsman had exceeded his powers.
That decision has since been appealed.
Because of the ongoing legal issues Dr Maguire said he is unable to discuss the case.
However, he said at times he faced major difficulties as he went about his work.
“I think at times it felt like trench warfare to be honest with you,” he said.
“Because, within a number of months, you are dealing with judicial issues, you are dealing with elements of an extremely hostile press, you are dealing with challenges to cases that are published.
“So at times it has been difficult, I think that’s must the nature of the office and the work it does.
“Anyone who wants an easy ride I don’t think would want to be Police Ombudsman.”
A former chief inspector of the Criminal Justice Inspectorate, Dr Maguire believes there are some who continue to have difficulty with the work of the ombudsman’s office.
“I think if you look at the wider policing family, whether it be some current officers, retired officers, representative bodies of police officers, I do think that some do have difficulty with accountability,” he said.
“I think that at one level they say they support the Police Ombudsman’s Office and the work that it does and at the same time criticise us for the work that we do - I find it difficult to understand at times.”
Dr Maguire said oversight involves building confidence.
“I have always taken the view for example that a report undertaken by this office that says police did no wrong is as useful as one which is critical of the police,” he said.
“Because this is about confidence in policing and confidence in the oversight mechanisms.”
He was dismissive of suggestions that people who make complaints that are not upheld should be sanctioned.
“For me that’s nonsense, this is about police oversight and the consequences of that sometimes will be critical of the police and sometimes it won’t,” he said.
“It seems that some just want positive reports about the police - that’s not what police oversight is about.”
The outgoing ombudsman also rejected suggestions previously made by the Police Federation that some serving officers feel they are the victims of a “witch hunt”.
“There is no factual basis for that statement,” he said.
“If you look at the – in the majority of cases where we say that the police have done no wrong.
“If you look at the survey work, some of which was published recently, where police officers say they are treated with fairness, they are treated with respect, they are treated with impartiality - to suggest this office is in some way in a witch hunt against police officers, in my view is nonsense.”
Dr Maguire conceded that the greatest source of strain between his office and the PSNI relates to legacy matters.
“Perhaps where there has been the greatest tensions between us and the police is in relation to history,” he said.
“Whether that has been in relation to access to information and the difficulties that has caused either in the past or in recent months.
“But I do think there actually are some people in the police who are very protective of the reputation of the RUC and don’t like the work that office does in relation to that.”
Dr Maguire said his comments were “not in any way an attempt to demonise” ex-members of the RUC.
He also said that senior PSNI staff understand the concept of accountability.
“I think at a senior level within the police, including (former chief constable George Hamilton), I have absolutely no doubt that they get accountability, they understand accountability, they see the benefits of accountability.”
Dr Maguire said when he took up office there was no ombudsman, no chief executive and no senior director of investigations.
Some relatives and non-governmental organisations were also critical of the office.
“And there was a whole bank of work which hadn’t been completed because of the difficulties at a senior level within the organisation,” he said.
“So the office wasn’t in a good place when I joined in 2012.”
He said a critical part of what he achieved was to have a stop on carrying out historical work lifted by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate in early 2013.
That work had been halted in September 2011 after the CJI said the operational independence of the office had been lowered.
However, Dr Maguire raised concerns about the funding of the office.
“I have been very vocal about the funding that has been given to the office,” he said.
“When I joined in 2012 there were 170-odd history cases and in the region of 40 staff.
“As I leave the office we have in excess of 430 cases and less than 30 staff, so the funding that we have that has been given to carry out the work has always been a problem.”
He said that funding has an impact on his caseload.
“Trying to navigate your way through the caseload with the resources that you have has been difficult.
“But that’s also in relation to contemporary work as well.
“That has continually been reduced as well over the last seven years and choices have had to be made in relation to where we prioritise.”
As he prepares to leave office he said he has no plans to continue working on legacy issues but is supportive of proposals to deal with the past.
“I am hugely supportive of those mechanisms, I think the way in which we deal with the past is fragmented, under-funded, not working for families, not working for anybody,” he said.
“I think they should be implemented but I have no designs on any of those bodies."
Dr Maguire said he is proud of the work carried out by his office during his term in post.
“It's unfair to families to say that I have looked at one piece of work differently to any other.
“We have published in excess of seven reports in relation to history... there is a body of work there that when the history work stared we developed a new way of doing history related investigations and when look at the portfolio of work it is something I am proud of across the board.”